Deep Work

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I’d like to start with a little caveat.  Cal Newport is a machine.  It is incredibly difficult to glean any other opinion from reading his book.  His accomplishments, Masters from MIT to start, allude to this hypothesis, and his ability to fabricate an atmosphere where he can practice Deep Work also involve some robot like tendencies.

The book is fantastic.  For anyone in the growing knowledge sector looking to galvanize their work, it offers tips on how to maximize output throughout your day, the book juxtaposes between the latest statistics and various anecdotes to provide a vivid picture of the best way to make yourself invaluable in an information economy.  He offers tips on what kind of deep work will best accentuate the demands of each individual.  He also offers tricks on mental exercises, such as memorizing a deck of cards, to train your mind to work longer in a deep state.  Even if you are not in the knowledge sector, there is much to be gained for anyone.

First (in order of valuable themes, not chronology) he makes the uncomfortable, yet timely, observation that none of us are as integral to social media as we fashion ourselves.  The virtual world, it turns out, does not revolve around that delicious seared Ahi Tuna that I had the other night.  He suggests taking a sabbatical from social media, if not deleting your account altogether, to help his reader understand this uncomfortable reality.  Coincidentally, I had largely divorced myself from Facebook and Twitter about a month before reading the book.  I had suddenly seen myself like Sisyphus, ever scrolling down with no end in sight and nothing to validate the loss of time.  For me, the decision had immediately improved my home life as well as offered me more opportunity to read and ponder.  As Cal points out in the book, the same architects responsible for making the casinos next to impossible to walk away from are responsible for Twitter’s addictive nature.  Hence why it is so hard to stop scrolling.  He focuses specifically on how it damages our capacity to think and work deeply, but as much of life in general, good and bad habits ripple outward.  So while my presence on Facebook is not as important as I might have wished to think, the time I spend with my daughters under the basketball hoop matters a great deal.

He reminds the reader that incessantly checking email also thwarts our capacity to focus more intently on the tasks at hand.  This idea is more complicated for most of us because it has been assumed in culture that hyperconnectivity is a net good.  So while deep down we may recognize responding to an email within minutes of its reception is futile, we are still battling the gods of culture who suggest that any connectivity is good connectivity.  But while he rightly maintains the idea that employees should press their employers on their beliefs regarding email response, his logical conclusion on this point reveals much about his industry by suggesting that any employer who does not unshackle you from your obligations to deep work may not be the right employer.  This seems, from my perspective, to be the musings of an MIT scholar whose specific set of skills are incredibly valuable in our current economy, and therefore could basically work wherever he chose.  The rest of us must ever compromise.

The last point that resounded for me is that structure matters.  Practicing the principles of Deep work will eventually have the Pavlovian effect of triggering the mind to go deep in pre-scheduled blocks of time.  He admits this is not a new concept, the same ideas can be seen in monasticism by the way they structure their days around a regimented schedule of prayer.  For me, again, structuring my day, and my chidren’s evenings make processes like bedtime seemingly effortless.  For me, this book has been a well received call to structure even more of my time.  But as Stephen King so eloquently surmised, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  With that, it seems important to acknowledge that room for spontaneity also matters.

A few relevant sub points that I found useful:

There are dual types of problems that the mind wrestles with, one is the type that requires active thinking and the other is passive thinking.  Solving a math problem requires active thinking.  Many philosophical problems can be attacked either actively or passively.  Walking in the city requires more active engagement, think avoiding being run over, while hiking requires more passive engagement.  The passive processes can bear as much fruit to deep work as active ones.  He quotes Nietzsche who suggested anything of worth was discovered while walking.  Or in Cal’s estimation, hiking.

The founders of most of the major tech giants, such as Steve Jobs, would not let their children own smartphones or tablets.  That is something to consider, the next time an acquaintance insists their children (implying that your children) need to know how to operate all of the latest technology.  Think about it, most of us -children included- have an iphone mastered within hours of removing its packaging.  Cal compares this thought process to a parent purchasing her child hot wheels because he has expressed interest in being an auto mechanic.  When it comes to any deep activity, from work to thought, there is little more eternally distracting than these little feats of human ingenuity.

The most appealing idea about this book is its general theme.  We live in a time of great comfort and technological breakthrough.  With each great innovation comes an equally great distraction.  Those who benefit the most from the world we now inhabit are the ones who are able to employ temperance in an environment that, on the surface level, seems to disincentivize those qualities.

While I think some of his hard lined overtones, like deliberately making yourself difficult to be contacted or scheduling your day down to the minute may only be reasonable in the work of a scholar, I think there is much to be learned from anyone who takes the time to read it.  If for no other reason than to remind us that those little distractions that often consume our day are not as important as we are often inclined to treat them.

Strangers in a Strange Land

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Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput’s new book, Strangers in a Strange Land, has garnered much attention in most of the circles I frequent.  Depending on the group of peers to which I refer is a testament of much of the polarized political culture we now inhabit.  For the more liberal Christians, words and phrases such as reactionary, alarmist, too fixated on human sexuality, or — my personal favorite — lamenting the loss of white Christian privilege are the kind of expressions one might expect to come face to face.  On the other hand, for the conservative Christians, ideas like timely, sober, reflective, and honest might be what a reader would expect to encounter.

The first book I had ever read by Archbishop Chaput was Render Unto Caesar, released in 2012, that offered a blueprint for Christian engagement in the public square.  In it, he connects the reader to the ancient west where much of the customs and general decency we now take for granted were only made possible because of Christian witness and sacrifice.  For what it is worth, he earned a perennial fan in me with its release.  In Strangers in a Strange Land, he offers a much less optimistic account of our role.  In the first line of the book, he makes a clear distinction between Christian hope and optimism.  We have hope because Christ died and rose again, but we do not have the luxury of “whistling past the grave.”  As Chaput writes, “People who hold a classic understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family have gone in just twenty years from pillars of mainstream conviction to the media equivalent of racists and bigots. So what do we do now?”  As I have experienced, this sentiment reaches much further.

First, it seems worthwhile to acknowledge the complicity that we had in contributing to the current state of affairs.  During the Vietnam war, which Chaput mentions as a turning point toward the toxic atmosphere we now inhabit, Thomas Merton wrote about Christian’s role in empowering secular culture by sacrificing our beliefs in the name of good citizenship.  Most specifically he cited the fracturing of Christian credibility by acquiescing to the secular authorities in manners such as war.  He wrote a compelling essay on these thoughts called Violence and the Death of God: or God as Unknown Soldier which can be found in the book Faith and Violence.  Further, one needs not look hard at the partisan lines Christians align themselves under to recognize the prophetic nature that Merton wrote.  American citizens who still align with the Christian faith tend to perceive our state of affairs, and whether a writer is a reactionary or a prophet, as Republicans or Democrats first.  Even if one does not agree that it was war in the twentieth century where Christians were not Christian enough, there are plenty of other cultural issues to draw where we have sacrificed our inheritance for the false promises of Caesar.

Nonetheless Chaput lays much blame at the feet of his own generation, the baby boomers, for not taking their faith serious enough to find it worth passing on.  One mustn’t look much further than the 2016 elections where the worst kind of Boomer decadence was on full display in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Nonetheless, we have all enjoyed the spoils of the most materially prosperous country in the history of the world and now the hens have come home to roost.  Chaput emphasizes the gradual hostility towards Christians in pop culture and the decision in Obergefell and Hodges coupled with the Obama Administration’s complicity in furthering the toxic atmosphere.  These observations seem spot on from the world I occupy, as I have watched, much of the negative feelings towards orthodox christianity had lain dormant up until the Obergefell decision.  But now the toothpaste is out, and we will not be putting it back in.

The book can be seen as a plea for Christians to unplug and return to living as a witness to the radicalism of the Gospels.  He refers to the proliferation of technology as having a narcotic effect on society as a whole.  It offers empty calories, much in the way fast food has, to the individual that has decimated the once vibrant community life relied on for all of our social needs.  In other words, to live counter-culturally for the 21st century Christian means turning off the television, unplugging the social media, and participating in rebuilding the micro communities so that the macro can once again flourish.  It also means speaking truth in love no matter how it is received.

My last point I would like to make regarding this book is whether one falls on the side that believes this is unadulterated alarmism or it’s opposite, his remedy seems to be one all Christians can agree is noble.  We must rebuild our vibrant culture from the ground up.  This means becoming more active in our communities.  Most of my peers are of the liberal persuasion, and we still engage on matters all over the board.  We also agree on many matters until the culture wars are broached.  The kids in my Sunday school class seem to think that the whole world is angry, though there is never a sad face in the circles we occupy.  So while I do fall on the side of Archbishop Chaput’s book as being one to take seriously, I cannot help but notice that no one is angry or ready to brandish the guillotine on either side of the partisan line.  At least this not the case when I am interacting with acquaintances locally.  This to me, is the spirit of the book and many of the other apocalyptic themed that are coming out.  Our strength is local.  While there are powerful people with large bankrolls who will not stop until every Catholic hospital in America performs abortions and hysterectomies on physically healthy women, most of the people we encounter day to day are normal people who wish to live normal lives.  Those are the people who’s hearts can be changed through diligence, fidelity to the truth, and Christian love.  And maybe by the time our children are adults, we will once again be seen as the leaven of society.

 

 

Basket of Deplorables

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A minor flick of the tongue of our potential future Presdent of the United States has had me reeling.  The suggestion that a large enough swath of Americans deserve nothing more than to be dismissed in such a way seems, un-American.

It is not so much that there isn’t truth to the statement, but perhaps not in the way Ms. Clinton had intended.  The fact is, we all hold views that someone, somewhere would find deplorable upon learning.  Nobody is perfect. 

Judeo-Christianity teaches we are all sinners.  This means we are all guilty of deplorable behavior.  As we divorce ourselves from our ancestry more people substitute this teaching with a much more malicious one.  That me and my tribe are the chosen ones and anyone who fails to reflect our ideas are deplorable.
So when a politician seeking the highest office of the land discredits an entire bloc of American voter with a gaffe of this sort is contemptuous.  That she can believe this suggests much more about her than anyone voting for her opponent.

Kenosis

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A Parent’s take on the Contemplative Life

To be  a parent is to be a participant in the contemplative experience.  This is true despite one’s capacity to  recognize.  A parent is engaged in a lifelong act of self giving.  Of pouring oneself out for the needs of another.  Contemplative prayer is a means to the same end.  Although, the other in this context is often less tangible.  In silence, one achieves over a very long time an emptying of ideas.  And over a longer period an emptying of oneself.  A parent deeply understands the act of Kenosis.  In the early stages of contemplative prayer, one fears this self loss, but this is not the case with parenthood.  A parent is so wrapped in her beloved that she never grasps her oblation until long after her child has obscured the very concept of sacrificial love. 

Thomas Merton once wrote, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”  These are undoubtedly words that a man who spent a lifetime in reflection understood as truth, and they resonate deeply in parenthood from a child’s first breath.  Kenosis, self emptying, is an act of systematically letting go of what one considers necessary to align with the Divine Will.  Parenthood, another form of self emptying, is another lifelong act of letting go.  In the early stages, one hopes to lose herself forever in her beloved’s chubby cheeks and toothless smile only to wake up one day convinced that parenthood will never be better than the wagon rides with her toddler.  And from every moment that seems to be the best, comes another.  A mother must also contend with letting go of certain wants for her child’s needs. She, who has altered plans to go see the movie dad wants to see but the youngest caught a stomach bug and thwarted the rare date night is a parent who deeply acknowledges the principle of Kenosis.  Parenthood is intuitively sacrificial.  On the other hand, the contemplative life is a willful act of self sacrifice.

This sacrificial love is accessible throughout the human experience, and it is a cornerstone for parents and contemplatives alike.  It’s monumental importance  is evident as the only act of love that results in the giver’s capacity to love more.  For the mystic, one powerful incarnation of concrete love is  when he identifies his oneness with his environment, or recognizes Christ within whom he interacts.  For the parent, it’s tangible when she understands her exponential capacity to love her children because of who they are.  In good choices and bad, in reward and discipline, the mother is lost in her self givenness.  She sees her child as simultaneously her and a wholly other individual.  Indeed, the experience of interconnectedness is unavoidable for both of life’s paths. 

The object with which one loves is where the life of the parent is infinitely less difficult.  A mother, who may question the purpose of her sacrifice must look no further than the eyes of her, simultaneously one but uniquely other, child to remember.  The mystic may go months or even years living on Manna in the desert in anticipation of an act from her beloved.  In the case of Blessed Mother Teresa, she lived in this state for sixty eight years.  Of course, her extreme aridity is very rare, but this sense of isolation is a normal occurrence in the interior life.  As Job lamented, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” and so too does the contemplative occasionally lament. 

In the end, sacrifice is a powerful tool that opens the heart to love.  And the common thread of Kenosis for the mom and the mystic begins with emptiness for the other’s sake and can end in it’s full definition of oneness with the Divine Will. Though the contemplative seeks the beloved without first knowing while the parent first finds the beloved then seeks the best way to know.  Both paths reveal the elemental components of discipline and sacrifice which, over time, transforms the lover to better accommodate the needs of the beloved.  And both paths open the heart and mind to the reality that our life is not exclusively ours, but a shared existence.  That we are at once ourselves and our ancestors.  That we are all unique individuals while still a part of one Body.